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The usefulness of taking a percentage of median income as a standard (whether it be 40%, 50%, or 60%, all three of which are examined in the Unicef document which I encourage you to look at), is precisely that we are using income distribution, and that it becomes possible to make broad comparisons between countries (comparisons that would otherwise be plagued by uncertainty about purchasing power and differing expectations in different cultures, etc). But as I pointed out beneath the graphs, their value is not absolute. The point is not to say: "Here lies the true definition of poverty", but to look at the relative importance of the lower brackets of income distribution across different countries (the OECD countries in the Unicef report).
And one thing that is clear when you do that is, that the US -- though the initial level is somewhat similar to the UK and France, for example -- alleviates poverty much less by means of tax and social transfers.
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